Capitals’ Goaltending Picture Cloudy After Samsonov’s Struggles

When the 2021-22 season began, the Washington Capitals’ biggest question – as it was the previous season – is how the team would fare with the youthful tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek.

One month and 13 games in, the results have been very inconclusive.

Third-string goaltender Zach Fucale made his NHL debut against the Detroit Red Wings Thursday, with a healthy Samsonov backing up on the bench and Vanecek having a night off after an apparent injury last Monday. It appears the long-term goaltending situation isn’t exactly clear in the nation’s capital.

Zach Fucale, Washington Capitals
Zach Fucale made his NHL debut Thursday in Detroit after numerous stops in the AHL and ECHL. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Fucale’s first game in the league at the age of 26 is a great story – the netminder has bounced around from the American Hockey League (AHL) and ECHL over the past seven seasons since being a second-round pick by the Montreal Canadiens in 2013. Fucale impressed Washington’s staff with his play on the Hershey Bears the past two campaigns, and he has posted a 1.73 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage in five games with the Bears so far this year.

However, it isn’t an encouraging sign for Samsonov that Fucale was tapped for the start in a game that the Russian seemingly would get the nod with a banged-up Vanecek, nor is it good for Samsonov that he has played just over four games’ worth of minutes so far this season, with an .893 save percentage in that limited action.

Vanecek appeared to be injured late Monday night, seeming to be favoring his shoulder in the closing minutes of Washington’s win over the Buffalo Sabres. Despite this, Samsonov didn’t get the start, and it’s been over a week since he was chased from the net on Nov. 4 against the Florida Panthers – allowing three goals on 18 shots in just 25 minutes – before he was relieved by Vanecek, who helped the Caps reach overtime despite trailing 3-1 when the goaltending change took place in the second.

Samsonov’s Struggle to Start

Ever since it appeared Braden Holtby would be leaving the Capitals via free agency at the end of the 2019-20 season, as Washington couldn’t afford Holtby under the salary cap and the goaltender’s play had declined since the Caps’ 2018 Stanley Cup title, Samsonov has had numerous chances to take the starting role in Washington. He has not been able to secure the role, with both his off-ice actions and inconsistent play on it.

Ilya Samsonov Washington Capitals
Ilya Samsonov hasn’t been able to claim the starting role in Washington despite numerous chances. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

He had a chance to be the backup netminder for the 2020 playoffs and make a statement for the starting role in 2020-21, but was injured in a reported ATV accident in his native Russia during the pause, allowing Vanecek to backup Holtby in the bubble.

The following season, Samsonov began the season as the presumed starter with Henrik Lundqvist out and Vanecek’s inexperience, but that lasted just four games into the season until Samsonov landed on the COVID list after he contracted the virus. The virus hit him hard, and it took over a month to return to action, as he didn’t appear in another game until the end of February. At that point, he had been supplanted by Vanecek’s strong start to the season.

Samsonov did appear in 19 games last season – 17 coming after his recovery, but he landed on the COVID list a second time in May. While he didn’t have the virus, the protocol did cost himself a chance to play in Games 1 and 2 of the team’s first-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins. Vanecek was injured in Game 1, and Craig Anderson won the opener and then was the overtime loser in Game 2.

Given a chance to start in Game 3 in Boston, Samsonov played well enough, but he will be more remembered for his gaffe in double overtime than his 40 saves during the contest. Washington didn’t win a game in the series with Samsonov in net, who played decently but with some question marks as the Caps exited the postseason in just five games.

Washington Capitals Ilya Samsonov
Washington Capitals goaltender Ilya Samsonov (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Washington did show some confidence in Samsonov after the season by not exposing him to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, and that briefly cost them Vanecek, who was selected by the Kraken. But when former Capital Philipp Grubauer signed with Seattle, Washington got a mulligan and was able to trade to reacquire him a week later.

So far this season, Samsonov has shown flashes of his potential, but also had some troubling outings. He has started just three games, with one shutout of the Arizona Coyotes with 16 saves, but also posted save percentages below .900 in wins over the Colorado Avalanche and Ottawa Senators. He was a hard-luck loser against the Calgary Flames, playing the final 42 minutes but the one goal he allowed was an overtime tally, and then had his worst outing in Sunrise against Florida which he didn’t get a decision.

What’s Next for the Capitals?

With a chance for Samsonov to wrest the starting role with gusto in Detroit, Fucale was put in net, clearly not what was envisioned in the Washington depth chart.

The question for the Capitals going forward appears to be if they will stick with their young tandem again past the trade deadline, and it appears seemingly unlikely they will. With four forwards on injured reserve or long-term injured reserve – Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Anthony Mantha and now Nic Dowd, Washington could have the cap room to trade for a veteran netminder by the deadline as insurance, something they didn’t have room for in the offseason.

After Washington general manager Brian MacLellan saw his goaltending plan blow up last season with COVID, injury and inconsistency, it seems that the team could decide to take out an insurance policy by the time this year’s playoffs roll around.

Related: Capitals’ Goaltending Vital to 2021-22 Success

Samsonov has certainly shown flashes of potential in his 50-game NHL career, with a 32-10-4 record and a .907 save percentage, but he has not shown the consistency Washington wants to see and his save percentage has dropped in each of his first three seasons to the sub-.900 mark this year.

Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals
Vitek Vanecek has been a pleasant surprise in net for Washington, but the Capitals may want insurance this time around. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Vanecek has been very good as the other netminder in Washington’s tandem, but also has shown signs of fatigue with overuse and in 46 NHL games, has a .908 save percentage and a 24-12-7 mark. He certainly has earned a role as an NHL goaltender after five years in Washington’s system with the South Carolina Stingrays and Hershey, but for a team with a closing Stanley Cup window, they may opt for insurance from a veteran this time around in case he suffers another postseason injury.

Fucale has quickly risen up the Capitals’ depth chart since arriving in the organization as an unrestricted free agent in 2020, passing Pheonix Copley – who was Holtby’s backup in 2018-19 but hasn’t appeared in an NHL game since – and was signed to a two-year, two-way deal in March. Even though Copley is on a one-way contract this season with Washington, it was Fucale who was called up when Vanecek was hurt and got his chance to finally play in the NHL on Thursday, surviving an early Red Wings onslaught to help Washington get the 2-0 win.

“I feel like the last few years have gone, been trending in the right direction,” Fucale told reporters Wednesday before the game. “Yeah, I got a good thing going and I’m just sticking to my game and I feel like things are working well right now.”

Fucale is the first Capitals netminder to record a shutout in his NHL debut, and the first in the league in nearly six years, as he stopped 21 shots in a memorable first game in the league.

With three young goalies with less than 100 NHL games experience combined currently on the Capitals roster, it would seem Washington may go outside to add some insurance by the March 21 trade deadline, and perhaps sooner if they begin to fall back in the playoff chase in a contested Metropolitan Division. While a rebuilding team would probably give Samsonov more time to try and realize his potential, with Washington harboring Stanley Cup hopes and some cap room likely freed up with injuries, Washington may opt to not gamble on a young tandem again this spring.

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